Kings have been different team with Jeff Carter in lineup

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Barring some sort of unfathomable collapse over the next five days the Los Angeles Kings are going to be back in the playoffs after falling short of the postseason a year ago.

If you’re searching for reasons why you should probably start with Anze Kopitar, whose dominant two-way play has thrown him into the Hart Trophy discussion. It is obvious that Kopitar is the team’s best player and one of the top all-around players in the entire league.

But for as great as he’s been, one of the turning points for the Kings season was the return of forward Jeff Carter back in late February.

Carter missed a significant chunk of the season due to an ankle injury that he suffered back in early October and it turned out to be a pretty devastating blow to a Kings team that hasn’t really been one of the NHL’s powerhouse offensive teams in recent years. Most teams will be hurt when you take a 25-30 goal forward out of the lineup for 60 games. That is especially true when it’s a team that is usually in the bottom half of the league in goals with him in the lineup. Take that player away and things can fall apart pretty quickly.

You don’t have to look far to see how much of an impact Carter’s presence can have on the Kings.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

Let’s start with the obvious: With Carter in the lineup this season the Kings have averaged 3.16 goals per game and own a 17-5-4 record. That would be a 120-point pace over 82 games, which would make them one of the NHL’s best teams.

Without him in the lineup their offensive output drops down to 2.78 goals per game and the record falls to 27-23-4. That would be an 88-point pace over 82 games, a number that would put them pretty significantly out of the playoff race.

To be fair, we’re dealing with pretty small sample sizes here and in a sport like hockey, where even the best players only play a third of the game (at most), it’s sometimes difficult for one player to make that much of a difference for one team. It’s probably not as simple as “Well, Jeff Carter is in the lineup, the Kings are the best team in hockey.” There are a lot of variables that go into why a team wins and loses that do not just revolve around one forward. That being said, Carter is definitely an important figure for the Kings and a player they absolutely have to have in the lineup in order to succeed because he brings an important element that most of the roster lacks. Simply put: He scores goals.

Once you get beyond the top handful of players on the Kings roster there just are not a lot of players that are capable of consistently finishing and putting the puck in the net.

Overall for the season they are 17th in the league in goals. An upgrade from where they have been in recent years, but still not great.  Of the 18 teams that are either in the playoffs or still mathematically alive in the playoff race they are one of just five teams that does not have at least six players with at least 15 goals. The only two teams still in playoff contention that are below the Kings on the goal scoring leaderboard are the Anaheim Ducks and St. Louis Blues.

A lot of that is due to the fact that Carter missed three quarters of the season.

He already has 13 goals in the 25 games he has played this season, good enough for a 42-goal pace over a full season. All of his goals this season have come in the 19 games since he returned from injury, a stretch that has seen the Kings go 11-5-3.

He gives the Kings a second scoring line to help take some of the pressure off of the top line so it does not all have to fall on Kopitar’s line to do the damage.

When a team has a player score at least two goals in a game this season they have a points percentage of .819. Carter has done that three times since returning to the lineup in late February. The Kings earned five of a possible six points in those games (a .833 points percentage), while Carter alone accounted for seven of the team’s 11 total goals in those games. He’s also had two different three-game goal-scoring streaks over the past month. He’s probably single-handedly been responsible for the team picking up at least five or seven points over the past month.

Don’t think that makes a difference in the standings? Consider the No. 9 team in the Western Conference is four points behind them.

The Kings aren’t the dominant possession team they were in recent years when they were competing for the Stanley Cup on an annual basis, but they are still the toughest team in the league to score against and with Carter back in the lineup they now have two legit scoring lines that can pose a threat to opponents.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.